Depending on what your family background and traditions are, you may or may have not stopped to think about the historical significance of the humble chocolate coin. Maybe to you it’s a sweet little treat that shows up during the holidays, that’s kind of fun to unwrap, and that’s a perfect bite sized candy, and nothing much more.
To others, however, chocolate coins actually carry a meaningful message that represents history and tradition.
Let’s take a closer look at some of those traditions, and what chocolate coins represent to different people.
History of the Chocolate Coin
One thread of the chocolate coin tapestry says that chocolate coin giving is said to be inspired by the deeds of Saint Nicholas in the fourth century. You’ve probably heard of this man, who serves as the inspiration for Santa Claus, or Father Christmas, and his name day which takes place on December 6.
The story goes that Saint Nicholas knew three women who wanted to get married but didn’t have the money, so he gave them coins to pay for their dowries. Because he was a humble man who couldn’t be seen giving money directly to women, legend has it that he tossed small bags of gold coins to them through the window. It’s from this tale 1,600 years ago that has inextricably linked gold coins to Christmas as we know it today.
Coins in chocolate form didn’t hit the scene until much later. They were introduced to the world sometime after chocolate started making its way into Europe in the sixteenth century. Of course, at first, only the aristocracy and the upper class had access to the sweet treat (probably paid for with gold, ironically). But as the years went on, chocolate coins began finding their way into the stockings and adorning trees as decorations.
St. Nicholas Day is also still celebrated and is associated with more modest gifts. On this day, children often wake to find their shoes filled with goodies and chocolate coins, real coins, and other small gifts and toys.
Chocolate Coins at Hannukah
Christians aren’t the only ones with ties to chocolate coins. They feature prominently in Jewish tradition, too. Here’s a brief overview.
Hanukkah gelt (meaning “Hanukkah money”), also known simply as gelt, refers to money usually given as presents during the Jewish festival of Hanukkah, otherwise known as the Jewish festival of lights. During the festival, Jewish people everywhere light their menorahs and spend quality time with one another.
Chocolate coins come into play because they are usually given to children, often associated with the game of Dreidel. During the game, each player begins with an equal number of game pieces (usually 10–15), which can be any object, and are often chocolate gelt, or pennies, or raisins. A dreidel is a four-sided spinning top. To play, each player spins the dreidel once during their turn. Depending on which side is facing up when it stops spinning, the player whose turn it is gives or takes game pieces from the pot.
Chocolate coins were traditionally given to teachers, too. The story goes back in the 1600s in Poland, Jewish people there would give their children money that they were supposed to give to their teachers during Hanukkah. However, over time, the tradition evolved so that the children got extra money to keep for themselves.
There are actually a few other origin stories when it comes to gold coins, or gelt, and Jewish traditions. It is said that the very first mention of gelt goes back centuries. According to Smithsonian Magazine: “the roots of gelt, or ‘money’ in Yiddish, are in the first Jewish minted coins, in 142 BCE, after the Maccabees gained independence from the Syrian king. The coins were stamped with an image of a menorah.”
Another tale associates Jewish independence from the Greeks a long time ago. When the Jews defeated the Greek armies, they wanted to create national coins that represented their independence. The theory goes that gelt is representative of those coins and that hard-won battle.
It is hard to know exactly how traditions begin and how they are shaped over the years. What we do know is that in the 20th century, candy manufacturers started selling Hanukkah-themed chocolate coins wrapped in gold or silver foil, as a substitute to real gold coins or other.
New York City is where some of this story can be traced to. The Loft’s candy company was the first producer of chocolate gelt. They created thin, round coins of chocolate and then individually wrapped them in coloured, shiny foil and placed in small mesh bags that resembled traditional bags of coins. What a smart invention that was sure to be a smash hit.
That’s not to say that children aren’t sometimes given real coins, too. However, in this case, they are often taught and encouraged to give a portion of it away to those in need or a charity of their choice. This is a way to teach children about tzedakah, which is the Jewish tradition of charity. But there could be more than one purpose for gelt.
According to the site Chabad.org, “Chanukah gelt celebrates the freedom and mandate to channel material wealth toward spiritual ends. This includes donating ten percent of the gelt to charity and using the remainder for kosher, wholesome purposes.”
Chocolate Coins and Your Traditions
Some holiday traditions morph over time, changing with each passing generation, while others are held in such high esteem that they are carefully passed down the line and practiced with precision year after year.
Whatever your traditions are, whether that includes chocolate coins or not, we hope you take some time to slow down and enjoy the simple things in life. And what better way than to savor some chocolate?